Degu

Octodon degus

Order: Rodentia

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

  • Must have stout metal housing – degus will quickly chew through anything plastic.
  • Degus are very active; a running wheel is a must, and a decent level of rotational enrichment will also keep them from chewing everything apart.
  • Ideally, use a mesh running wheel or “flying saucer style” wheel to prevent injuries from legs getting caught.
  • Ambient room temperature works well for this species, approximately 70 degrees. They are not as susceptible to overheating as chinchillas are.
  • The Philadelphia Zoo houses two males together; they have been very stable socially, even when they are separated and then reintroduced.

Diet Requirements

  • In the wild they eat insects, fruits, and vegetable matter.
  • In captivity, they eat commercial chinchilla pellets, Zupreem primate, seed mix, hay
  • Degus are very susceptible to diabetes. For that reason, they should never be fed sugary items (raisins, yogurt treats, etc.)
  • The Philadelphia Zoo uses a limited quantity of sunflower seeds as a training reward.

Veterinary Concerns

  • Generally pretty hardy animals. Occasionally, the degus at the Philadelphia Zoo will get small scabs around the edge of their ears (sometimes referred to as crispy ear). Increase humidity to prevent. Vet treatment usually clears this up quickly.

Notes on Enrichment & Training

  • Never pick up a degu by the tail or grab the tail. Degus have the ability to drop their tales like a lizard if it is grabbed. Unlike a lizard, however, the degu’s tail doesn’t grow back.
  • The Philadelphia Zoo trains their degus to jump into a clear carrier; education staff then simply present the entire carrier, with the degu inside. This avoids risk of dropping, which is especially important as degus can be challenging for less experienced animal handlers.
  • The Binghamton Zoo at Ross Park generally present their degus in a clear hamster ball because they have had issues with degus biting handlers. For the same reason, Binghamton Zoo does not allow the public to touch their degus.
  • More experienced handlers can present degus sitting on their hand, similar to chinchilla presentations. The Philadelphia Zoo degus are trained to jump onto the hand, but handlers must be comfortable and confident with this technique before using it in front of an audience.
  • Degus love taking dust baths, and will typically display this natural behavior if given the opportunity. If an educator places a dust bowl in the carrier, the degu will pretty consistently take a bath, giving the educator a very interesting behavior to talk about.

Other

Colony or Breeding Management

 

Individual Identification

 

Programmatic Information

Transportation

Temperature Guidelines

 

Crating:

Tips on Presentation

Touching Techniques

Tips on Handling

 

Potential Messaging

Acquisition Information

 

Comments from the Rating System

  • Binghamton Zoo at Ross Park: Both of ours bite, making them basically untouchable by the public. We usually put them in a hamster ball to display.
  • National Zoo: Difficult to socialize to humans when housed in large groups
  • Philadelphia Zoo: Harder to handle, but can be crate-trained for less experienced handlers

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

Common degus are considered to be endemic west central Chile, where it inhabits the lower slopes of the Andes. Although some have argued that its range may extend north into Peru, this is not well supported. It is common in the international pet trade, however, and is often used in laboratory studies outside of its native range.

Physical Description

  • Octodon degus superficially resembles a gerbil, but is larger.
  • The fur is agouti for the most part, with cream colored fur on the underparts. There is a pale band around the eye and, in some individuals, the neck. The tail is moderately long and conspicuously tufted. The ears are large and darkly pigmented.
  • The fifth digit is reduced, and on the forefeet it has a nail instead of a claw.
  • Sexes are difficult to distinguish, but males tend to be about 10% larger than females.
  • Like other rodents, their teeth are normally a very bright orange colour. The reason their teeth are orange, is that the chlorophyll in the greens that they eat reacts with an enzyme in their bodies and produces an orange organic fluid in their saliva.
  • You will notice that when they walk the hold their tails partially up, possibly to keep it from wear or damage or even getting caught.
  • A full grown adult is about 6″ long with another 6″ in tail with a bit of fluff on the end of the tail. Degus typically weigh between 6-10 ounces.
  • A degu’s tail is usually about 1/2 to 2/3 the length of their body.

Life Cycle

  • During the annual breeding season, male-male aggression temporarily increases. Males exclude other males from their burrow and monopolize the females (usually 2 to 4) who live there.
  • Dustbathing and urine marking may be used in the defense of territory by both sexes, but these behaviors particularly increase in the male during the breeding season. Courting males often engage in mutual grooming with females, and frequently perform a courtship ritual, which involves wagging of the tail and trembling of the body.
  • Related female degus may nurse each other’s young.
  • Degus breed once a year, and the breeding season in the wild is in Sept-Oct.
  • Number of offspring – 4 to 6
  • Gestation period – 90 to 95 days
  • Time to weaning – 4 to 6 weeks
  • Age at sexual or reproductive maturity – females 12 to 16 weeks, males 16 weeks
  • Average lifespan in captivity is 4 to 8 years

Behavior

  • Degus have well-developed sight, smell, and hearing. They are highly vocal and use various calls to communicate with one another, including alarm calls, mating calls, and communication between parents and young.
  • Vision is very important in avoidance of predators and in foraging. It has been shown that degus are able to see ultraviolet wavelengths, and that their urine reflects in the UV range when fresh. It has therefore been suggested that degus’ urine scent marks are also visual cues.
  • Degus are social and tend to live in groups of one to two males and two to five related females. Groups maintain territories throughout much of the year. Degus are semi-fossorial, digging extensive communal burrow systems. These burrows are often shared by Bennett’s chinchilla rat (Abrocoma bennettii).
  • Degus feed exclusively above ground, however, and have been observed climbing into the low branches of shrubs while foraging.
  • Dustbathing is an important social behavior among degus. Groups repeatedly mark favorite wallows with urine and anal gland secretions. This may help the group identify each other by scent as well as delineating territorial boundaries.
  • Degus are mainly diurnal, and are most active during the morning and evening.

Threats and Conservation Status

Degus are considered the most common mammal in its range, and is not considered threatened or endangered.

Did you know…

  • Degus are in fact significant agricultural pests in some areas. They take advantage of cultivated prickly pear cactus, wheat, vineyards, and orchards as abundant food sources, and can do considerable damage. They are also known to host three species of parasites that can infect humans. On the flip side, degus can benefit humans since they are an ideal model for diabetes research.

Photographs

 

Documents

Contributors and Citations

  • The Philadelphia Zoo

Top Photo: By Photographed by: Heike ‘Speck’ Hellwig (Uploaded by: Tim ‘Avatar’ Bartel) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons